The hallways of the Joplin nursing home radiated like spokes from a central station. A very human bouquet of smells mingled with murmuring television sounds. The tired looking lady seated at the hub listened to my query and pointed down one of the corridors saying, “He’s in Room 312.”
I thanked her and set off on the last few steps of a four-year journey. A cyclops awaited me somewhere down this last dim passage. His memory held the stories I had traveled a long way to hear.
The door to Room 312 was open. A man stood at the window with his back to me. He was watching the rain.
I tapped on the doorframe. “Mr. Herrera, I’m Joey Colton. I called you last Tuesday about coming by to …”
Without turning around he said, “Hello Joey, you can call me ‘Jesus.’” He spoke in a melodic Irish brogue that was entirely incongruous with his Latino name. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Throughout the long drive over from St. Louis, this was the moment that I feared the most. Not because his appearance might frighten me, but because I knew I would grimace involuntarily and offend this kind old man.
His laugh came with a bout of coughing, and his single eye crinkled and twinkled in an infectious good-natured stare that I never quite got used to.
“Think nothing of it Joey lad,” he said, gesturing for me to take a seat. “I used to make a living with this mug.” He sat down in the room’s other chair, looked around conspiratorially, and added, “But I never made much, just enough to keep my stomach from growling.”
Jesus Herrera must have been in his early nineties when I met him that day, but an active life had left him alert and balanced on his feet. Thin and wiry, his handshake told me he had once been a man of considerable strength. He wore a green flannel shirt tucked into khaki pants and was shod in comfortable-looking leather moccasins. Fortunately, he was good at small talk, so we chatted about the weather, my flight from Atlanta, and St. Louis traffic. After a minute or two he sensed my easing apprehension, and moved our conversation to his familiar ground.
“Mary Elkins, the Hog Eyed Woman, and here sits her own grandson.” He leaned forward a little. “Joey, before I tell you what you came to hear, I have to know how you found me. And before you set off on that story, which is bound to be a long one, I’m going to need a drink.”
I smiled. Twenty minutes later I walked back into the room with a fifth of J. W. Dant. Jesus produced two shot glasses, and I splashed a little in each.
“Are you sure you’re allowed to have this stuff in here?” I asked before sipping.
He took a pull, crinkled his eye, shook his head, and said, “OK Joey, let’s hear your story.”
Mine was a tale I had told many times over the past couple of years, but never thought I would be telling it to one of the Nighthawks. Here’s the gist of it:
In the beginning, I didn’t know much about my mother’s people. Sheila, my mother, rarely spoke of her mother and never mentioned her father. I stopped asking about them by the time I was a teenager. We lived in Mountain Home, Arkansas, not too far from Joplin, by the way, in the rambling Victorian house where Sheila grew up. When mom and dad split up, I went with him to Memphis. Fast forward twenty years to Sheila’s death and my trip back to Mountain Home to settle her affairs. This was four years ago.
While I was poking around in one of Sheila’s closets I found the rolled up canvas. It looked quite old and I noticed the words “Nighthawk Shows” written in faded black ink on the coffee-brown material.
When I unfurled the heavy fabric I discovered what Jesus already knew, judging by the smile spreading across his face. It was a carnival sideshow banner. A painting covered one side of the canvas, about 7 feet long and 4 feet wide. I struggled with the thing until I got it hung up and could back off and take a look. That’s when I saw my grandmother Mary for the first time.
Jesus let out a whoop and clapped his hands. It was as if he had been standing there with me. I realized that he had seen this very canvas hundreds of times. While I described the painting, he closed his eye and smiled, rocking gently back and forth.
Mary’s was a unique deformity, revolting at first glance, but hypnotic and capable of inspiring terror.
In the over-the-top style of the best sideshow hype, the artist portrayed Hog Eyed Woman as a menacing giantess coiled to jump out into the carnival crowd. Her hair was a mountain of tumbling auburn curls falling over a pair of broad shoulders. She wore a white blouse with billowy sleeves, black jodhpurs, and brown leather boots that came to her knees. A silver chain choked her neck implying an element of danger, as if she had broken free of her bonds to terrorize the countryside.
The garish paint colors were only slightly dulled by time’s patina. A red-orange border framed the whole scene, with a fluttering yellow pennant that proclaimed her name in giant, tomato-colored letters shadowed in green. To remind the viewer that Hog Eyed Woman dwelled in the land of show business, the artist placed her between gold-tasseled stage curtains. A dark blue sky dominated the background stage set, with a yellow crescent moon floating above a shadowy swamp festooned with hanging moss, vines, and winging bats. In the lower right corner was the obligatory bubble exclaiming in bold, black letters: “Alive!”
As my gaze raked the painting, one detail troubled me nearly as much as her face. I told Jesus what it was. Instead of hands, the Hog Eyed Woman in the painting had shiny, black, cloven hooves.
Jesus laughed. “Those crazy hooves were the artist’s idea.” He was wheezing and nearly spilled his drink.
“If she had normal hands, didn’t the customers feel gypped?” I asked.
“Hell no,” Jesus reared back in his chair. “Our Mary was a jumping Jehoshaphat of a woman. The people in that tent with her night after night kept their eyes clapped on her face, by God. She would throw that hog eye on ‘em, and later they couldn’t tell you whether she had hooves or handlebars.”
“A jumping Jehoshaphat of a woman.” At last the Mary in my mind was taking shape beyond the two-dimensional image I had carried for so long. Jesus was going to give me my grandmother, but first I had to tell him the rest of my story. For just a moment I was tempted to gloss over some things, but he was a Nighthawk, and he deserved to hear it all.
So I spun it out, all the twists, turns, and dead ends. Along the way, I lost my job and nearly lost my marriage. But there always seemed to be another lead to pursue. The trail finally ended here in Joplin.
A nurse’s assistant brought in a plastic tray of food that Jesus and I shared. Candied carrots and bourbon tasted oddly good together. For a few moments we sat in silence listening to the tattoo of the rain on the window. Then it was his turn to do some talking.
“You want to hear about Mary,” he said, “but first I need to introduce you to the Nighthawks.”
Jesus took a sip from his glass, looked at the ceiling, and slipped back seventy years as easily as he might recall what he had for breakfast.
“They were my family from 1929 until 1960,” he said. “Their show names were Hog Eyed Woman, Wolf Bane Boy, Galapagos Girl, and Twisted Man. Of course, I was Cyclops. We were the freaks of the Nighthawk Sideshow.” He paused for a moment, remembering.
“Through hard times and good years we roamed from Waycross to Wichita Falls, and attached our little tent of attractions to the big carnivals like Lundy’s and Sheehan’s. Sideshows like ours needed the Ferris wheel, the carousel calliope, and the popcorn smells to draw in the farm families and townspeople. And the carnivals needed the sideshows.” He raised his eyebrow, “Good Bible Belt folks crave the dark side, too.”
At that, Jesus gave a little laugh. His eye was bright, gazing not at me but inward where the memories were stirring.
“When they picked me up, I was barely fourteen years old. Mary would have been around twenty-five years old at that time,” he said. “She knew how to handle life on the road, and she made a place for me in the old Airstream trailer where we all slept. The work was hard, and the hours were long. Some towns had bad boys that bullied the carnival freaks. Mary knew them all and took care to warn me when we rolled into one of those places.”
I refilled his glass. The rain intensified, battering the window.
“Lester, Wolf Bane Boy, was the closest to my age. I think he was around eighteen when I joined the troupe, but it is hard to tell with freaks. Bonner, Twisted Man, drove the bob truck and did the barking for the show. We looked to him when someone got in trouble. He had a way of peering right through a foggy problem to see the solution that was there all along. Anita, Galapagos Girl, was the oldest. Nobody knew her age. She had been with Nighthawk in the old circus days when the sideshows worked with Hagenbeck-Wallace and Sells-Floto in Chicago and New York. Despite her years, Anita did the cooking for us.”
As he described them one by one, my mind painted their images on freak show banners like Mary’s.
“The bob truck held our gear and pulled the Airstream. We were on the road so much that we wore out several trucks. Lester was a pretty good mechanic, if he could keep the oil and grease out of his hair. Mary could also handle some engine repair, and as far as physical strength, she could out-lift any of us.”
He paused and picked up the bottle, which was running low. I have to be careful with hard liquor. Long ago I learned to nurse a drink. For every shot glass I downed, Jesus must have downed three, yet the bourbon seemed to have no effect on him.
“Let’s go somewhere,” Jesus said polishing off the remainder of the Dant.
The rain had eased up some, and it was dark by that time. I followed his directions, and we pulled into the entrance of a bowling alley called the Falconaire Lanes. Only a few cars and trucks waited in the rainy parking lot. Inside, I counted less than twenty people, yet the noise level was jarring after the quiet of the nursing home. Booming strikes meshed with heavy metal grunge from the jukebox.
I said something about it to Jesus. He smiled. “Joey, that’s why I come here. I need to recalibrate my ears after I’ve had all the dead quiet I can take.” A painful guitar solo coinciding with colliding ball and pins forced him to lean in a little, “I can remember the carnivals much better here.”
The waitress brought us some peanuts and asked Jesus how he was doing. While we sat there other customers drifted by and spoke to him. I didn’t see any reaction to Jesus’s face and guessed he had been coming there a long time.
“There’s another reason why I like this place,” he said. “Do you smell it Joey?”
I took a moment to sample the air. All I found was the waitress’s cigarette and a whiff of mildew, probably from the carpet.
Jesus said, “Mary had a fascination with smells. Bowling alleys were one of her favorites. She taught me to appreciate the subtle blend of urethane, cigarette smoke, and mineral oil.”
The waitress brought our drinks.
“Whenever we passed through a town with a bowling alley,” he said, “she had to check it out.”
I wondered how the two of them, both unusual in appearance to say the least, could have walked into a public place without people giving them a hard time.
“Oh no,” Jesus said. “We never had a problem that I recall. You see, we came late at night when the booze had everybody fuzzed. In fact, sometimes a cowboy or ploughboy would even make a pass at Mary.” He laughed, “Hell, once or twice, a cowgirl made a pass at me. Mary got a real kick out of that.”
Now it was my turn to lean in so I could be heard, “Jesus, tell me some more about Mary’s interest in smells.”
He produced a pipe and small tobacco pouch from one of his pockets, and talked through the corner of his mouth while he lit it. “Joey, lad, Mary could stand on a train trestle and smell a catfish under a log in fifty feet of water. Nobody had a nose like Mary.” He crinkled his eye at me through the pipe smoke, and the story came out greased and warm from all the tellings.
“That Mary was cousin to a blowfly and daughter of vultures. Didn’t she prove it once in Tuscaloosa? The show closed around midnight and the two of us were standing under the stars sipping some mellow corn whiskey when she froze like a cigar Indian.
“I knew that look, but I asked her anyway, ‘Mary, girl, what’s the matter?’
“She didn’t answer, just threw her big head back on her shoulders and rolled it from side to side flaring those nostrils, drinking up the smells drifting on the night air.” Another raised eyebrow. “It was the smell of death that caught Mary’s fancy. She took another pull on the mellow corn, handed me the bottle, and pointed to a dark cluster of farm buildings across the highway. ‘Jesus,’ she said, ‘Get the log chain out of the truck and meet me in front of that hay barn.’
“The moon wasn’t up yet and the night was black as creosote. I managed to climb over that farmer’s fence carrying a thirty-foot log chain and the corn bottle. That’s when the dog started barking. A moment later a light came on in the house. I couldn’t see Mary anywhere. I was about ready to sneak back to the show when I heard the tractor crank up inside the barn.
“Two seconds later those barn doors banged open, and Mary busted out riding that smokin’ Farmall. ‘Jump on Jesus,’ she cried and it was all I could do to get one foot on the hitch and swing up behind her. Somehow I managed to hang on to all three: the tractor, the chain, and the mellow corn. Behind us I heard a man’s voice hollering as loud as that dog was barking, but Mary let out a whoop and gunned that old crate. We rolled right over a barbwire fence, and went flying into the woods.”
Background noises, the wooden clatter of bowling pins, and incessant juke box howls put a jagged edge on this part of the story.
“I couldn’t tell you how far we traveled that night. We chuffed across pastures and down country roads. Dark churches and sleeping farmhouses paid us no mind. Now and then Mary brought the tractor to a halt and stood up breathing the wind. I tried to sniff out the scent she was following, but all I got was diesel fumes until we topped a rise in a fescue field. A faint breeze went past my face, and I finally caught a whiff of the tainted sweetness that lured Mary halfway across the county.
“The rising moon illuminated the pasture where we were closing in on something dead. Mary drained the corn bottle, pointing toward a little pond ringed with willows. The stench led us to a steer sprawled in the muddy cattle tracks at the water’s edge.”
Jesus paused, clenching the pipe in his teeth, “Did I tell you Mary was strong?” he asked. I recalled the broad-shouldered woman in the freak show banner.
He signaled the waitress for another round and resumed the tale, occasionally tapping the table top for emphasis.
“She jumped off the tractor, and dragged the carcass to a dry place a few yards from the pond. When I asked her what I could do to help, she told me to bring her the chain.
“Joey, if you’ve seen a cowboy hog-tie a roped calf then you’ll understand how Mary trussed up that steer. She bundled the four hooves together, and knotted that log chain like it was a birthday ribbon. Without saying a word, she made the chain fast to the hitch. I climbed up behind her as she cranked the tractor, and we left the pasture dragging that grisly prize. For the first time that night, I began to worry about the county sheriff and deputies that must be out searching for the farmer’s stolen tractor, but we never saw any patrol cars.
“We were within a mile or so of the carnival when Mary turned into a wooded hollow. We came to a stop beside a sycamore tree that glowed white in the moonlight. She tossed the chain over a limb, using the tractor to hoist that critter up into the air. Now Mary always carried her straight razor. I watched her dress out that steer like a buck skinner.
“Dawn was coming on when we rolled the farmer’s tractor behind his barn, and scuttled across the highway to the show tents and trailers.” Jesus aimed his pipe at me like a pistol, “By breakfast time the tale about Mary and the steer had spread through the whole carnival.”
“Well, what about the steer?” I asked.
“Oh, that steer had his own destiny waiting for him,” Jesus answered.
When he returned from the restroom, he picked up the story, “After the carnival shut down for the night, we all gathered at the hollow. Mary’s steer, skinned and gutted, hung suspended from that sycamore limb over an enormous bed of red-hot coals. Fat oozed out of that steer’s body and streamed down into the fire, sizzling, popping, and filling the hollow with a thick haze you could taste. Coal oil lanterns hanging in the trees lit up the scene, and people crowded in as close to the fire as the heat would allow. It was the only time I can remember when a whole carnival of freaks, barkers, and roughnecks, probably a hundred souls, stood together like one big ugly family. You should have seen that collection of Halloween faces in the firelight. Through the drifting smoke their eyes and teeth were shining like Hell’s Christmas.”
Jesus’s eye shone, too. For both of us, the bowling alley evaporated, and we were surrounded by carnies in that midnight grove. I thought of the wolfish, pirate faces I’d seen as a boy, glowering at me from the shadows within the carnival ride machinery, and the tattooed biceps pulling the rusty levers.
Jesus’s voice rose in excitement, “The carnival’s own Divine Providence Jazz Band kicked off ‘Cakewalkin’ Babies.’ Bodies started moving. Somebody brought a keg of beer and several of us passed around bottles of hooch.
“A cheer went up when Mary walked out of the shadows. She looked seven feet tall. A big roughneck pulled out his Bowie knife. She let out that war whoop of hers, and gave the steer a push with her boot that swung that carcass out toward the crowd. The guy with the Bowie knife stepped up, sliced off a hunk of meat, and pushed the steer back across the fire where Mary had her razor ready and waiting. Back and forth that critter flew while everybody got a piece of it.”
While Jesus talked I saw gesticulating, flickering shapes dancing around the fire in that hollow. And I could picture Mary, the big Hog Eyed Woman, and the swinging steer. It was a beautiful and startling vision of my grandmother.
When we left the alley the rain had started up again. As I navigated our way back across town in the downpour, Jesus was quiet. I hoped he wasn’t through talking because I still had a couple of questions I needed to ask.
“Jesus,” I broke the silence. “What did Mary think about her life with the Nighthawks? Did she wish she had been born into a, uh, normal life?”
Jesus’s form was dark against the rainy passenger side window. “Not long after I joined the show,” he said, “I happened to find Mary standing outside our show tent gazing down the sideshow midway. It was late afternoon. In the distance, the Ferris wheel stood dark and motionless above the carnival rides. She pointed down the dusty lane flanked on both sides by the freak tents, and asked me if I could see the old people.
“All I saw was an empty midway. After a couple of minutes, she told me it was during those last hours before darkness that the deserted sideshow midway belonged to the ghosts. While she talked, I swear she looked as though she was watching something, so I said, ‘Mary, what do you see?’
“That’s when she described the shambling crowd of hunched backs, curled limbs, and hideous faces coming and going out on the midway. She said they all knew each other, and they had a trust in one another that got them through the life they couldn’t escape.
“I looked hard, squinted my eye, and turned my head this way and that, hoping to get them in my peripheral vision, but I never saw what she saw.
“We stood there for a long time. Joey, I want to tell you she looked as happy then as I ever saw her. When the carnival lights started coming on, Mary told me that the ghosts of the past always disappear at nighttime. She said the night belonged to the living oddities, like us, the ones who have no other way to put bread on the table. The sideshow tents that had been dusty brown in the afternoon haze began to glow like Chinese lanterns. In the distance the Ferris wheel awoke with lights and music, and began rolling toward midnight. Me and Mary slipped back through the tent to get ready for our show.”
I pulled into the nursing home parking lot. It was late but there was one last question I needed to ask Jesus. I think he knew it was coming.
“The year Mary left the Nighthawks,” he said, “we were in eastern Oklahoma. I’ve forgotten the name of the town. One night three Kiowa Indians jumped Bonner in back of our show tent. I never knew what started it. Bonner was a peaceful man. It was late, after the shows had closed, and there weren’t many people around. Mary got there about the same time I did. Those Kiowas had hurt Bonner pretty bad.
“When Mary told them to back off, they turned on her. That was their big mistake. Our Mary stood flat-footed with bare knuckles, and those Kiowas had to crawl away when Mary finished with them. Well, old Bonner was stove up pretty bad. They had broken his arm and some of his ribs. He was too bad off to travel, so Mary stayed behind to look after him.
“Three weeks later our schedule opened up and we circled back through that town. Bonner looked a lot better, though it took him a long time to really get over the beating those Kiowas gave him.”
At that, Jesus gave me a look as if to say that he’d answered my question. I knew that Mary left the Nighthawks in the summer of 1948, and Sheila was born in December of that year.
There were other questions I wanted to ask, but I could tell that Jesus was tired. He had given me what I came for: my grandmother, a woman I would always regret not knowing. With what I had from the old man’s stories, I could picture Mary courageously making her way through an unforgiving world.
After some final small talk, Jesus shook my hand and told me to come and see him when I was ready to hear more Nighthawk stories. I said that I would, but I never saw him again. The Nighthawks died with him the following year in his nursing home bed.
I left Joplin the next morning, and picked my way southeastward through the Ozark hills.
The drive offered some spectacular scenery, but I had much to think about and might as well have been riding through a fog. It was nearly dark when I pulled into Mountain Home. Ten minutes later I parked at the cemetery.
With the flashlight, it didn’t take me long to find the two graves. Sheila’s still looked new while Mary’s a few feet away was gathering some lichens. When I was a kid, I came out here with Sheila a few times. I never got to know what Mary was like as a mother, but looking back I remember the tears in Sheila’s eyes. Now I believe that she loved her mother, but just didn’t know how to describe Mary to her grandson. Sheila’s love must have been important to Mary because nobody else loved her. The Nighthawks accepted her and gave Mary a family, but Sheila was the only one who loved her.
While I was hanging the Hog Eyed Woman’s banner in the old tree near the graves I realized that the tree was a sycamore. I considered that an appropriate coincidence. With a few dead limbs and some cardboard I found in my trunk I laid a funeral pyre for Mary’s outlandish image. Now that Jesus’s stories were in my memory, I didn’t need the banner. One of the things that I resolved on the drive over from Joplin was that I wanted to destroy this relic before it ends up in some auction house or collector’s showroom.
The burning canvas lit up our corner of the cemetery. Sitting on the ground beside Mary’s grave, I thought about the freaks and the roughnecks and the steer and the hollow with the sycamore, and could almost see Mary standing there with her straight razor.
As the last shards of the banner fell glowing to the ground, I heard Jesus’s Irish lilt from somewhere in my head. “Our Mary was a jumping Jehoshaphat of a woman. The people in that tent with her night after night kept their eyes clapped on her face, by God. She would throw that hog eye on ‘em and later they couldn’t tell you whether she had hooves or handlebars.”
JAMES BARNETT's short stories have been accepted for publication by The Carolina Quarterly and The Blotter Magazine. His nonfiction books are published by University Press of Mississippi. The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735 was named by Choice Magazine of the American Library Association as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2008. His latest nonfiction book, titled Beyond Control: The Mississippi River’s New Channel to the Gulf of Mexico, will be published in early 2017. James lives in Natchez, Mississippi, with his wife and editor, landscape artist Sharon Richardson.